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FIV+ Q&A with Heidi Hollenberger

Learn more about the process of adopting and caring for a cat who tests positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) from a cat mom who has two gorgeous FIV+ cats. Whether you are thinking of adopting an FIV+ cat or you don’t know what it means to be FIV+, read on to learn more from Heidi about her furry family members, Snowflake and Aspen!

–Did you know Snowflake was FIV+ when you got her?

We did not know that she was FIV+. She was dumped as a kitten at my parents farm. There was another stray up there that was eating all the food my dad put out and was afraid that the kitten would die so of course we took her home. She was tested for both FELV and FIV but came up negative.

–How did you find out she was FIV+?

We didn’t find out until last year this time that she was FIV+. She was showing some lethargy, not eating, her behavior was overall “off.” Of course this was on a Sunday so we ended up at the emergency vet. Long story short, it ended up being a urinary tract infection but we took her in too soon – the infection wasn’t showing up yet so they decided to run a bunch of other diagnostics. The vet asked us if we knew she was FIV+, we didn’t. She said that she didn’t think this situation was related to the FIV but that it’s good information to know. The next day we got the call that it was indeed a UTI and they sent her home with antibiotics and she recovered just as any other cat would have.

–What information did you have that allowed you to look past the FIV+ status or understand it better?

Once we had the FIV diagnosis I read up on what that means and I consulted with our vet. I think if we had known ahead of time that she was FIV+ I might have had more concerns and maybe more hesitancy. But that comes from ignorance and for no other reason. It is often referred to as “Kitty AIDS.” Who wouldn’t be worried and/or frightened about that? The honest to goodness truth is that we never would have known that she was FIV+ if they hadn’t included that specific testing as part of her diagnostics. There is nothing about her that would have told us that. Aside from routine vaccinations and a spay, she has been to the vet twice (UTI and kidney stones, for which she is on a special diet but has nothing to do with the FIV). Our vet now believes she was tested for FIV too young, she didn’t have enough antibodies. It is also believed that she contracted it through her mother because she has never been involved in a cat fight that could have resulted in contracting FIV. But we don’t know for sure. The vet informed me that the bite required for transmission is medically significant and I would have known. We had already fallen in love with her and we would have kept her regardless.

–What drew you to adopting another FIV+ cat and/or Aspen specifically?

Because there is nothing remarkable about Snowflake’s health history and she is a very healthy cat, we intentionally decided to adopt another cat that is FIV+. Again, I thought that it would be the most responsible thing to not bring in an FIV- cat with an FIV+ cat. We were actually bracing ourselves that we would be denied adoption at all. Through the process of adopting Aspen, we were counseled by both Angel’s Wish and our vet that FIV- and FIV+ cats can live together very easily without incident. But you know, I am glad that we didn’t know differently. Aspen is a dream cat and he may not have otherwise been our first choice. We had zero worries about bringing Aspen into our home…aside from introducing him to our two Labradors, two guinea pigs, and our other cat. It can be a lot for people to adjust to this craziness let alone a new cat. But he has been a champ!

–How are Snowflake’s and Aspen’s lives expected to be different from an FIV- cat? Are their daily lives any different from an FIV- cat?

Their lives are no different. The diagnosis is just information, nothing more and nothing less. I grew up with cats. The two cats I have now, both FIV+ are exactly the same as any other cat. They are vocal especially when it comes time to eat. They are vocal when they think I have cheated them on the wet food. They bite the end of the pen when my daughters are doing their homework. They jump on the table and counters but move just as quickly to get off when they’ve been spied. They purr so loud you can hear them across the room. They use their litter boxes and use their scratching posts. They exude love…Aspen more than Snowflake. Snowflake has always been on the grumpier side. Everything sort of needs to be on her terms. Aspen loves to be picked up, belly rubs, raspberries on his throat, playing with anything and everything…ALL of these things are way more meaningful to us then a diagnosis.

Aspen – the snugglebug!

–Do you have to take Snowflake to the vet more often?

No. Snowflake goes to the vet annually like any other cat. We have never been advised differently.

–Do adopters need any special kind of training, set-up/equipment, or experience to adopt an FIV+ cat?

Not that I can think of. I would say the most difficult part of owning an FIV+ cat is keeping them indoors. Snowflake wants to go outside. She actually asks to go outside to go to the bathroom…weird, I know but I have to say, it was awesome to not have to clean out the litter boxes. Once she got the diagnosis of FIV+ we were advised that she cannot go outside because there is always the risk for transmission. Other than that we don’t even think about the diagnosis. It means nothing to us except if she were to get sick and there was no other obvious reason. It’s been eight years and it’s a non-issue for our day-to-day experiences.

–What kind of medical care might an FIV+ cat need that an FIV- cat might not?

I think the only thing that is different is awareness. Because I know the cats are FIV+ I might not be as likely to take the “watch and wait” approach when their behavior seems off. I might be more proactive in seeking veterinary care when there are behavior changes. I don’t think this is a bad thing it just might cost a little more on the front end but seriously, sometimes the preventative costs for ANYTHING are less expensive than reactive costs in the long run. At the age of eight, Snowflake is scheduled for her first dental ever. So even something as trivial as that is on par with any other cat. I don’t feel that I am over exaggerating or under playing the FIV diagnosis. It truly is a non-issue for our day to day living.

–Does being FIV+ affect any of your other pets or family members? Would you consider adopting an FIV- cat?

The FIV+ diagnosis does not affect any of our other pets. Having another cat has affected them more! Our Labradors love that this means twice the opportunity to sneak cat food and dig in the two additional litter boxes. The guinea pigs now have an additional regular viewer. Snowflake is Snowflake. That’s how we have always described her.  She is the queen bee and wants to be treated as such.  

Snowflake – the Queen Bee!

Knowing that FIV+ and FIV- cats can responsibly live together happily and healthily… I would absolutely consider bringing either into our home. FIV should not be a human-made death threat. People that are scared or unwilling to provide homes to cats simply based on an FIV diagnosis are the bigger health threat to these cats than the virus itself. I am so grateful every day that the volunteer from the Humane Society saw that Aspen (aka William) was a special and unique fellow. Without the compassion of that volunteer, the Humane Society, and then Angel’s Wish – we would not have this amazing boy right now. I wish you could all know him. To know him is to love him. I’m actually more concerned that he doesn’t have bones. When we pick him up he just flops into us and purrs.

–Do you have any resources or people (like a veterinarian) that have been especially helpful in caring for Snowflake (and Aspen) or learning about FIV?

Like everyone else in the world, I have probably read every internet article ever written on FIV. The information is mixed. One article talks about how everything in life with a cat with FIV is roses and rainbows while the very next article says it’s doomsday and death. I finally stopped reading and started talking to real people with real experience. Those people are my veterinary staff.

I go to the Black Earth Veterinary Clinic. I was so afraid that they were going to judge me and make me feel crazy for intentionally adopting an FIV+ cat. I should have known better. They are the least judgemental staff I have ever had the pleasure to know. They were so excited to meet him and gushed over his handsomeness. When I told them I was afraid of their reaction they just looked at me and said they were so happy for us! I know they will always provide the guidance we need. And I am happy to say that our experience is much closer to roses and rainbows – except maybe those days waking up with a cat sleeping on your neck. Nope, wouldn’t trade those for anything!

I would encourage anyone to at least include FIV+ kitties when considering adoption. Don’t let it be the only reason you don’t adopt them and don’t let it be the deciding reason. You can have any other reason in the world, you prefer a certain color, you prefer a cat that is dog friendly, you prefer a cat with one eye…you are certainly entitled to be selective – adoption is not a short team placement. BUT, I would encourage you to be open minded because I’m telling you, life with these two cats are about as good (and normal) as it gets!